Monday, September 6, 2021

Back to square 2 or 4 maybe?

I always associated this expression to an algebraic form but, according to some web search, it comes from the time people were listening to the radio to follow football (yes, that American sport where you hold the ball in your... hands!) and commentators were using the square 1 term as an image for a team getting back to their goalmouth.

In IT, at least before quantum computing came to disrupt a century of binary physics, we like to think in powers of 2, which is also practical to establish the basic form of an exponential progression. Without having to understand what's in the black box, everybody is familiar with these popular memory sizes such as 32, 64, 128 or 256 GB.

To some extent, there must be a similar application to the effort it takes in running to get to a certain level. I mean, it takes a great deal of effort for some people to qualify for Boston for instance, to shave these last 5 or 10 minutes off a PR. Or for the fastest runners to qualify for the Olympics. Or to run a marathon under 2 hours! Not exponential when you get close to your limit, but asymptotic.

I admit I didn't put much more thought into establishing a reliable formula or general law. But, on my long run on Saturday, I was thinking that I was basically back to square... 1. Especially as I ran into a small group of Stevens Creek Striders, the club I learned so much about trail and ultra running from, back when I joined them in 2003. Back to the source of inspiration!

Yet, it's not quite fair to call that square 1. Indeed, albeit slowly this time, I still managed to run 28.5 miles to the top of Black Mountain again, not something I was able to do 18 years ago! (I ran my first 50K 3 years later, Way Too Cool 2006.) And, even at that slow pace, I may still be running faster than many, so what am I complaining about, I should just be grateful!

Here is the deal: it's not just the hamstring tendon injury which is annoying. Well, every other step is painful so that's annoying for sure! But pain is often part of ultra running. Just that it isn't meant to occur right off the start. For one thing, the injury prevents me from training as hard as I used to. I'm especially staying away from the track for the risk of pulling too strongly on the tendon. In addition, for 5 to 6 months after February 2020 when I could hardly speak and breath, maybe a COVID episode before it was better known, I also had difficulty breathing especially in the first 2 miles, on every training run. Lungs are better but I'm pressure I lost a large part of the 79.8 VO2 max I had when I switched to Masters. But the biggest issue I'm now facing may be mind preparation and strength, including self-confidence, or lack thereof. My ugly daemons...

For that Saturday loop, I ran REI with these Striders, then continued on Stevens Creek Canyon Road all the way up to Black Mountain on Bella Vista trail, then down to Cupertino on Montebello Road, McClellan and Pacifica. The air quality wasn't great, we couldn't even see the cube at the top of Mt Umunhum from Black Mountain!

Beyond that encounter with the Striders, I also ran into Laurent, an ex ILOG and IBM colleague, hiking along the dried out Stevens Creek. Then, going down on Montebello Road, I had a chat with Quicksilver teammate John Burton who was hammering up on his bike. Quite a social experience after all for a solo long run! Here, at the top of Black Mountain, and you can imagine the Ocean behind, under the smog layer...

28.5 hilly miles is something so not quite square 1 maybe, but square 2 or 4. Still hoping my painful persistence to move forward will pay off, eventually. Without being sure that this will be the case, that it is a slam dunk medically speaking, quite the contrary!

On Sunday, I spent a few hours under the kitchen sink to replace an old and broken InSinkErator and an outdated faucet. If you've ever done this type of plumbing job, you know about the stretching and exercise opportunity! ;-) Besides, the temperature got to 90F by the end of the afternoon, outside, so I didn't feel the vibe to go for a run (and I finished the plumbing project by 9 pm anyway).

On Labor Day, I went up to Black Mountain again (who's counting?). The temperature was super nice when I left home at 8am but quickly raised. As I was racing with a couple of bikes on the way up, and passed them, I felt way too hot. There was some nice breeze in the shade, but the air was hot in the sunny areas. Thankfully, there is still water at the faucet at the summit campground! After some hesitation, I went down on the other side of the mountain, on Bella Vista, but did walk all the way back to the top on Indian Creek trail. 1.5 exposed and steep mile at 19 min/mile, ouch! The air quality was a bit better, and the visibility quite great actually, we could see summits around the Bay emerge from layers of either fog or smog. For instance, here is Mt Diablo in the distance, with Stanford in the foreground on the left:

Another slow loop, not counting several stops to cool down in the shade, definitely back to square 2 or 4 on that one. I wasn't quite happy with the 9:11 pace of Saturday, it got worse this Monday with 9:24. Although the second run had more elevation with two climbs to the top of Black Mountain (Garmin gave respectively 5,058 and 5,123 feet, while Strava 3,077 and 3,999; such a wide difference which shows these measures are rather meaningless from a GPS working out of triangulation). Given the elevation of Black Mountain at 2,812', Strava's stats seem more realistic (there are a few up and downs on each course).

In other better news, I got a reasonably fast 11-mile on Friday, and a couple of runs in Houston's heat during the week, with my first business trip in 18 months! There is that...

One step at a time, one long run at a time, one hill at a time... The beast is still wounded, but not ready to quit the ultra fight yet! So many people are dropping at races around the world, like at Lake Sonoma 100K this weekend, recovering from the pandemic is definitely a global societal issue. And huge health-related one too, both physiologically and psychologically too!

At least, drawing energy from getting out there in nature, helps! When weather and air quality allows at least... Speaking of nature, see these pictures from the top on Montebello Road. Grapes getting ready to be harvested.

A few more years for the new vineyards coming from a land swap with the open space preserve:

As for the ugly hole of Lehigh Quarry, it looks really bad from above!

Take care out there, all!

PS: From Mandie and Robert to Bill, a few Striders on the move!

I was also surprised to see garbage trucks on the road on a Labor Day... A few people got the memo though, bins were ready and all lined-up! ;-)

Sunday, August 29, 2021

PCTR Headlands Hundred 2021: not quite there yet, but trying. Hard.

It has been a week already, let's do a quick one before memories fade away and, scoop, before a business trip to Texas this week, the first since my last client meeting in March 2020! And it had to be Texas, in the midst of a serious outbreak thanks to these crazy anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers...

Speaking of adversity, and especially for that ultra marathon running event, throw in some devastating wild fires still raging in California. Between COVID and poor air quality, even more kudos to race organizations and directors for keeping is moving, what a fate in itself.

And, then, some like Greg and Jennifer Lanctot are bold enough to produce something which has never been done before in our local Marin Headlands, a single event combining distances from half marathon to... 150 miles! Not to the overwhelming scale of this past week's UTMB, or North Face's ones, but still, and especially much harder economically, at the small scale to preserve the sense of ultra community.

For many reasons, I happened to select the 100-miler in this year's Pacific Association USATF Grand Prix of Mountain, Ultra and Trail running. Ironically, that was conflicting with the annual picnic of my running club, Quicksilver. Would you rather suffer for 20 or 30 hours on rough trails or get free food and drinks with friends? Seriously, I'm asking...

Anyway, despite common sense and my hamstring tendon still being painful, I decided to lead by example and enter the 100-miler, what could get wrong, right?

This was my 173th ultra race and 17th 100-miler, even the 2nd this year, so you'd think preparation wasn't needed anymore. Well, first, the physical preparation has been quite spotty the past 2.5 years with the long lasting injury. And mental has been quite destroyed between the lack of racing and work-induced stress during the pandemic. With 17-hour days since I took a new position in July, I was super glad to at least have handled the logistics part rather well. See for yourself, I had some serious ultra stuff lined up!

4 headlamps, 1 waist lamp, plus batteries, I could run through several nights!

I even stocked up for the season with Vespa Power, GU Energy (gel, waffles, electrolytes), Succeed (S!Caps) and even a pair of poles from Sports Basement (although I would have rather get my favorite Leki which I have left at our place in Chamonix).

A few days before the event, Greg shared the news that the Park Officials were forbidding aid stations from serving hot food. While I typically don't each much during ultras thanks to the OFM and Vespa's intrinsic power, a cup of soup can't heart during the night, or at the finish. I got 4 insulated bottles filled with water and, on Friday afternoon after work, scrambled to find good preparations for chicken soup and mashed potatoes. Again, I was ready. Oh, and, Friday night, to the risk of wasting an hour of sleep, I even created and printed out aid station charts since I was going to be screwed (an expression meaning that I won't have a crew to help this time) and the course can get quite convoluted and confusing when you are exhausted at night.

Again, I was ready on the logistical side. Sleep wise, completely deprived after a few nights under 5 hours. On the mental prep side, my main objective was to finish to get some points in the Grand Prix. Not with much pressure as I believe I was the only Pacific Association member in good standing, in my age group. I just had to finish with the 33-hour cut-off. The last time I did this race was in 2013 when I won, setting a Course Record of 18:22:25. I had a super crew, Team Farther Faster (Agnès, Toshi, Judy and Sachin), was well trained and at the top of my game. It was obvious that I will need the extra 14.5 hours this time! Hence the purchase of the poles to at least power walk the hills.

With the race starting at 6 am, before sunrise, I woke up at 2:30 (not even needing an alarm, just the work and race stress) and arrived at the start before 5 am. There were only 40 of us in the 100-mile, and a few had started mid day Friday or Friday evening. With that, check-in was really fast and I almost fell asleep in the car having 20 minutes to kill and no cellphone coverage.

I was still preparing my bag in the finish area, which we'd visit 3 times during the race (4 25-mile loops), barely paying attention to Greg's pre-race briefing when he seemed to indicate a course change. As the second UltraSignup seeded runner, I was expected to be in the lead but I was so confused to hear we'll now start with a 5-mile loop with orange ribbons, I let another runner lead, likely the only one with a better UltraSignup score, Robert Ressl-Moyer of Sacramento, whom I didn't know. He was using poles right from the start, although I was surprised of their short length (like for cross-country skiing, I go long for poles when I use them, so there is really something to pull you up in uphills. 130 cm.). Anyway, Robert was in front and just behind me was Miwok super volunteer, Charles Zuckerman, for whom it was his first 100-mile race in 13 years. Charles kept teasing others that he was in trouble if he was still seeing me, 1 mile in the race, but, given the circumstances, I was just happing trotting in the first steep hilly miles, over Rodeo Lagoon. As we approached the ridge, I actually passed Robert and took the lead on Wolf Ridge trail, enjoying the downhill toward Miwok Trail. There, I took right to follow the orange ribbons which were easy to spot with some daylight now. I completed the loop under 50 minutes and got back to the same trail again, this time following the yellow ribbons as expected (the first loop was to make up a last minute course change imposed by the Park Officials again who prevented us from going all the way down under the Golden Gate Bridge).

I saw Charles finishing his first loop, about 4 minutes behind, but no more sign of Robert. I assumed he had either slowed down a lot, or that he had switched to the 100K since I heard another 100K runner boasting that he had started with us, while 100K runners were supposed to start 5 minutes after us, and do another 2-mile loop of their own. Pen Perez was catching shots of us just before the stairs:

2 miles in the yellow ribbon section, I started passing the tail of the 50-mile race, which was quite entertaining as we were exchanging encouragements and that would last until I pass most of the 50-mile runners but 5, in the first 28 miles. Occasionally, we were also seeing, passing or crossing, the early 100-mile starters and, even more inspirationally, the 9 valorous 150-mile competitors. 150 miles on this terrain, I've heard about 200-mile races, but wow, humbling!

I was moving quite well through Pirates Cove, although the tendon started yelling around mile 10, ouch! Nothing unmanageable, this has been the case for the past 2 years on every training run anyway. I plunged into Stinson Beach and just grabbed a banana at the table, before turning around. I started the big climb with ex Quicksilver teammate, Shiran Kochavi, while finishing my banana and catching my breath. Half way up, so about half a mile from the aid station, I saw Charles coming down, followed by 3 or 4 100-mile runners. I turned left on Coyote Ridge Trail which has some serious uphill sections in which I alternated power walking and jogging. At this point, I got into the cloud and the visibility was reduced to a few hundreds yards. But more importantly, I was completely wet between the mist and the sweat, and getting cold as a result. I kept pushing the pace to stay on the warm side and was happy to get back to Tennessee Valley, under the cloud. I drank a cup of Coke, got my bottles refilled, mostly GU2O because I hadn't drink much water, and forget to take a Vespa pouch which I regretted afterwards. My chart had 12.8 miles to my next drop bag so I knew it was important to stock up there.

I love the Marincello Trail, this is the section I did chat with Hal Koerner after pacing Mike Wardian at North Face 50-mile in December 2008. Hal taught me this expression of Diesel Mode, retrograding into first or second speed, keeping a slow, steady, easy pace. And, despite the great image, I have to say that I'm struggling with slow running in the hills, something you'd think is easy, right? One more thing to learn and practice... On that hill I did catch up and pass the lead 50-mile female runner, Maria Steinhauser who was killing it! I felt better, temperature wise, in that uphill, but then we got close to the cloud again on the ridge on SCA, dang. In retrospective, I made an interesting mistake, forgetting that there were at least 16 microclimates around the Bay! I did check the weather at Stinson Beach, not Sausalito. Stinson Beach has some clouds in the morning, then a sunny afternoon. But on the Sausalito side, the cloud was real, so thick and low that we couldn't see the Golden Gate Bridge. On Friday night, Agnès had reminded me of enjoying the views... well, not that Saturday!

I was around mile 20 when, surprise, I see Robert coming back from the Fort Baker aid station (which, again, wasn't at Fort Baker but, thankfully, much higher, just below Conzelman Road. Robert stopped and asked "were we supposed to run an extra loop at the start?" When I confirmed, he said he could do it after finishing this first large/main loop. That made all more sense. He was a good 4 to 4.5 miles ahead, he was killing it as well. Myself, as I saw them on my way back up to SCA, I had about 1 to 1.5 miles on the next 3 100-mile runners, Charles still being part of that group.

I was now at mile 24 and, for the past 10 miles, had experienced something really inconvenient, some electrical discharge along a nerve between my lower back and the injured left leg. Not far from the injury but not quite, more like a sciatica pain. First, it was occasional, like once in a mile. But it became more frequent as I was enjoying the long downhill toward the start/finish area. And, with every electrical shock, I was losing the control of my left leg which made me trip several times. All signals were green, I wasn't cramping, not bonking, but I was so bummed because I couldn't think that this will get better. It was like so much pain as accumulated around my pelvis and lower back, like this area was acting as an electronic capacitor and firing 380V randomly and, now, more frequently, and even as I had slowed down to a slog or slow walking.

Of course, you can argue that I started way too fast given the lack of training but I still ran the first 28 miles way slower than my recent training runs on Black Mountain. Which makes sense since I still had 72 grueling miles to go, but still. Where I messed up though is that I was hoping to run the first loop in around 5 hours. With that, I felt ok to get to the finish area after around 4 hours and 50 minutes of running, and spend almost 10 minutes assessing the situation before getting back on the course. But I had forgotten about the extra loop, so we weren't at 25 miles as planned, but my GPS had 28.5. At 10 min/mile, 3.5 miles are a big difference, pace wise! Photo credit, Jay Boncondin:

Anyway, I painfully got back on the course, having a few additional electrical shocks even on the flat section of Miwok Trail, pretending everything was under control while now crossing paths with the other 100 and 50-mile runners finishing their own loop. But, as I was approaching the 50K mark, it became obvious that I wasn't going to hold for 70 miles like this and, not wanting to end up on the Tennessee Valley side to drop, decided to turn back, to the surprise of a few who had no idea what I was going through (although they probably thought I was a rookie and had started on a crazy pace). Anyway, I got back to the finish area with 33 miles on my Garmin, to DNF.

At least that made for a shorter race report! Still, some disappointment of course, although I had serious doubts about the whole venture before even registering 1 week before the race. For my first 100-mile, Western States 2007, I took several days off, wrote several pre and post race posts, had the whole family with me to crew, had a super pace in Rob Evans, was super motivated and prepared. Fast forward 14 years, what a difference! As people say, we'll live to fight another day! Still, that makes for 17 DNFs our of 173 races, dangerously getting close to the 10% territory. That being said, as I recall, only one of these DNFs stopped before the marathon mark (Quad Dipsea is the culprit! With 28.6 miles, there is really no point in not finishing if you passed 26.2 miles...).

Although I saw only 6 hours of the mega 4-day event, I read so many accounts from other participants and I happily join the crowd to thank the PCTR staff, the aid station team captains and the dozens of volunteers who took turns over 4 days to keep all the runners safe and pumped up!

I left before Chef Yaku could officiate, having prepared some hot food off site and working with Greg on keeping it warm per the last minutes COVID rules of the Park Officials.

Buffs on!

I was expecting some sun, but not quite that Saturday afternoon over Rodeo Beach:

I drove to Tennessee Valley to grab my drop bag and saw I-Tao Tsai there who had stopped by to encourage his Pamakids teammates.

Then drove back home, leaving around 2:30 pm. Technically, I could have stopped by Club the picnic for the last 10 minutes, but I wasn't sure there would still be some action down there (Agnès had to stop by her school to prepare and had left around 1:30). Now, I need to share, at least for my own records that, despite only running for 50K, I was getting sleepy driving on the way back. I can't imagine a night of walking in this fog, I probably would not have survived in that state. Lack of sleep is certainly a recipe for disaster in ultra, let's work on this in September and October!

Not surprisingly, the injury didn't disappear after that. I was able to run a decent 10K the following Sunday and on Tuesday. But too much work again and a 24-hour round trip to smokey Tahoe for a wedding on Friday prevented me from running much otherwise. 16.6 miles this Sunday at 7:02 pace, a healthy run if it wasn't for the hamstring complaining as I write this, Sunday evening. It took Anton Krupicka 6 years to come back after a series of injuries, and podium at Leadville this month, here is for some silver lining.

Stay safe out there and special congrats to all the Headlands finishers last weekend (see the results)!

PS: here are 2 AQI shots as of Friday night. I haven't checked the theory of air quality in the fog, I would assume droplets can catch/fix quite a few particles, right?